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My Kingdom for a Horseshoe

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Reflections on the Ahmari-French Debate

Odd-couple debates and debate tours are the wave of future intellectual events. There was Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek’s debate, which I missed; a tour of debates between former Mexican president Vicente Fox and leader of multiple Brexit-related political parties Nigel Farage, which I caught when they came to Lafayette College; and any number of Intellectual Dark Web events featuring people like Peterson, Sam Harris, and Bret Weinstein. “Debate me, you coward!” is the joke du jour about lesser-known or less in-demand figures trying to generate clicks or revenue through a confrontation with the stars of the day — take Ben Shapiro’s challenge to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a representative example.

Now a tour of debates between Sohrab Ahmari, the New York Post opinion page editor and former columnist at the Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine, and David French, the National Review editor and former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has conservative pundits excited. The Ahmari-French series is interesting in that it did, pretty much, begin with a “Debate me, you coward!” moment, when Ahmari published his essay “Against David French-ism” in First Things in May.

Why did Ahmari pick French, a practical operator with social conservative bona fides and without much in the way of an explicit ideology? Is there really such a thing as “David French-ism,” and if so, what’s the alternative supposed to be? (See Jon Baskin’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on “Academia’s Holy Warriors” for a relatively neutral answer to this last question.)

I went to their Notre Dame performance to see what all the fuss was about.

What stuck out to me, as an observer with a history (though maybe not a future) in liberal, progressive, and lefty social groups and political campaigns, is how familiar the debate seemed. The similarity was on two fronts. First, Ahmari’s accusations that French’s classical liberal approach to politics is weak, defensive, and merely procedural, lacking a substantive vision of the common good, are deeply reminiscent of left-wing attacks on moderates, on norms like civility, and on principles like free speech. Second, many of the ideas articulated by Ahmari and by another panel participant, Charles Kessler, a Claremont McKenna and Claremont Graduate University professor who edits the Claremont Review of Books, sound actually — in content, not just in form — like ideas that are popular with leftists these days.

So I will take these two topics in turn: the characterization and critique of liberalism and the prospects for some sort of horseshoe alliance. But first I’ll try to explain just what transpired in the debate itself.

French spoke first, and explained that in his view the proper functioning of American society requires the fulfillment of “two reciprocal, non-delegable duties”: the government must protect the liberty of the people, and the people must “exercise that liberty for virtuous ends.” French focused (as I have occasionally in my own writing) on a crisis of “negative polarization” in which voters have “less affection for [their] own side than [they] have hatred for the other side.” This is a phenomenon, French emphasized, that far predates Trump. “One of our urgent [conservative] projects,” French suggested, is to “defuse negative polarization,” and you do that by “let[ting] people govern themselves. … Remaking culture from the top down” just “further divides the country.” During the question-and-answer period, French returned to this theme, stating that “there’s no substitute, at the end of the day, for humans exercising responsibility.”

Ahmari went next, emphasizing that he and a “cohort of young conservatives” have “a desire to renegotiate some elements of the conservative program.” Ahmari said that when he thinks about his children, he “mostly just feel[s] anxiety.” About what? “The vulgar culture into which they’ll grow up, the ideological indoctrination into ever-more exotic ideas that even five years ago most people would have thought were nonsensical, and the broader kind of cultural breakdown — the opioid crisis, the fact that so many young men stay home and play video games, the massive pornographization of the culture.” What does Ahmari think is the cause? “For two generations, both left and right in this country have pursued deregulation. For the right that’s been economic deregulation. For the left that’s been moral and social deregulation.” This is exemplified by “the rise of the woke corporation.”

In response to these challenges, conservatism needs, Ahmari insisted, to give up its “rigid public/private distinction” and its “defensive procedural posture.” Conservatives should instead, Ahmari thinks, offer a “substantive vision of the good” — the Constitution, for instance, is “not a neutral document” in his view, and neutrality itself is “poison” if made into an overarching principle. During the question-and-answer period, Ahmari noted that doing this would require that conservatives become more comfortable with exercises of “state power.”

Kessler began by talking not about the Trump era but the Bush era — a period of conservative thought that, supposedly, began with George H. W. Bush’s presidency, extended through George W. Bush’s presidency, and would have continued with Jeb Bush’s presidency. Republicans of this era “lacked a sense of an accelerating moral crisis, of the moral dissolution of American society, and of a certain kind of constitutional decay.” Unlike Ahmari, Kessler took a look at “the Trump policy agenda.” He framed it as having five parts, which he said should be historically very familiar in the Republican Party prior to that Bush era (often going back as far as Teddy Roosevelt).

First, protectionism “enables the working class to live a prosperous and healthy life.” Second, immigration restrictions kept us from having “too much diversity…too fast,” because “people need to be able to identify with one another and trust one another,” which “may take time.” Third, foreign policy isolationism, and a lack of interest in “exporting democracy.” Fourth and fifth were lower taxes and conservative judges, on which Trump agrees with Bush-era Republicans. Kessler mentioned one final point of divergence between Trump and the Republican mainstream: his style, which Kessler defended as “an evolutionary adaptation to an unprecedentedly hostile political environment” which would likely be “confined to this administration and this unusual president” — i.e., not part of any sort of ascendant conservative new wave.

The first thing that stood out to me about this debate was how the substance/procedure distinction matches up with debates on the left. There, the idea of a centrist liberalism devoted to neutral procedures, or even to any overarching norms at all, like civility or nonviolence, is widely derided. I wrote about this in my very first piece for Arc over two years ago, about the left-wing love for the phrase “politics is about power.”

Both the socialists I disagreed with in that piece and the Ahmari side of the current conservative scrum are committed to the idea that, to truly do politics (as opposed to what, though?), one must determine what one’s values are, make an effort toward those values winning out in one sense or another, and impose those values to some degree or another once one becomes victorious — in more or less that order.

This is often taken to be a realist view, as against the idealism of those who think we can achieve good outcomes simply through civility, rational discourse, liberty, and so on — the “procedural” goods.

On the other hand, we might construe the French side rather than the Ahmari side as representing true realism, and Ahmari as the idealistic one. French said that when proposing any policy that requires the expansion of some sort of power, one should ask, “How will this play when my political opponents have power?” This, of course, is a common refrain on the civil libertarian left, as against a great deal of progressive censorship and moral panic. It seems that, instead of realism against idealism, we have in both debates a pair of combinations of the two: on the one side, a group that thinks they can win some sort of epochal victory, but that they must get their hands dirty to do so; on the other side, a group that thinks no such victory is possible, but that the losses from maintaining certain norms while they’re in power will be outweighed by the gains from those norms being in place once they’re out of power.

On the one side, a pragmatism about strategy but an idealism about history; on the other side, a pragmatism about history but an idealism about strategy.

One thing I struggle with in these debates is just what is meant by “procedural” and “substantive” goods. Ahmari spoke over and over about “autonomy” as one of these procedural goods. It’s not clear to me that someone like French must accept this framing. Why can’t French say: “Actually, the world is substantively better if people are able, by and large, to do as they please”? Why can’t that be part of French’s vision of the good? French appeared ready to accept that autonomy is a procedural good, when it might have been open to him to construe it substantively instead.

Perhaps the idea of political substance rules out any statements about what people can or can’t do, what they’re able or unable to do, as being not substantive. But if that’s the case, the claim that autonomy is not a substantive good is simply a tautology — this idea of “substance” is geared almost circularly towards an opposition to liberal values. In any event, it’s not at all clear why a moral vision concerning what people are able to do should be less substantive than a moral vision concerning what people actually do. Of course, it is open to Ahmari to disagree that autonomy is a good at all, but if it is good, it’s not clear why it deserves some lower status.

Claims about the supposed non-neutrality of procedural goods seem similarly wrong-headed to me. Imagine you tell your child, “Today you can paint whatever you want; my painting policy is neutral.” The child paints a turkey. An anti-liberal visitor knocks on your door and says, “Your supposedly ‘neutral’ painting policy was actually not neutral at all — it was a turkey-favoring policy, as is clearly shown by the result.” It’s difficult to make sense of just what the visitor means by this — difficult enough that we should suspect that the two parties simply mean different things by the word “neutral.”

Now, there are reasonable claims in the vicinity that can be made. For example, there are already many established legal exceptions to free speech laws: copyright infringement, true threats, defamation, and so forth. A progressive might say: “Why draw the line there and not at hate speech?” Or a traditionalist might say: “Why draw the line there and not at obscenity?” There’s always a looming threat of arbitrariness in some of the line-drawing exercises required by liberal principles. But it’s not clear to me that discussion of “neutrality” is the best way to make this point salient, and also it’s not clear to me that any sensible ideology can make do without the idea of a neutral principle occurring at some level of generality or another.

Perhaps it is the “procedure” side, rather than the “substance” side, that shows what critics of liberalism mean.

We can imagine someone in some situation following a procedure mechanically, as it were, without regard to the actual facts of the situation, the weights of the situation’s potential outcomes, and the cost of the procedure itself. Donald Trump is said to have once cashed a check for under a dollar; this is an example of one way in which instinctively following a procedure—in this case the procedure of collecting money you’re paid—can become irrational on certain facts.

For a thought experiment, imagine a statute was passed somewhere that forbade children from eating. If a bunch of attorneys told parents to respect the rule of law and follow the procedure of mounting some sort of legal challenge to the statute, they could rightfully be accused of fetishizing the procedure and ignoring the moral weight of the underlying non-procedural goods (children’s health and lives, in this instance).

This suggests that there might be some available middle ground in these debates about procedure and substance. On the one hand you have those who follow procedures mechanically without investigating the real situations that are involved, or who everywhere and always place procedural goods above so-called substantive goods. On the other hand you have those who deride procedural goods as somehow vaporous or politically insufficient.

So in the middle you might have those who find procedural goods fairly important, but still think we should step back, every now and then, and see whether we are letting following our procedures blind us to some important material realities. These might include the supposed “crisis” of “Drag Queen Story Hour” or the threat of American fascism which is, we’re told by some on the left, supposed to license everything from misspelling people’s names on purpose on Twitter to violence in the streets.

But on the other hand, they might not include these things. That’s why “every now and then” is, to me, a rather important part of this middle position: for pretty much every state of affairs there is someone, somewhere, who thinks it is a crisis. To question the viability of a procedure every time you employ it is to cease to have a procedure at all. And if you don’t have a procedure at all, then the goods that would have been embodied in the practice of that procedure, which can themselves be quite substantive, are never obtained.

And yet, from introspection and personal experience, I do sometimes think there is something to what Ahmari and his parallel critics of liberalism on the left tend to accuse liberals like myself of. A simple psychological truth about me is that, when situations arise that pit the moral fervor of one group against the moral fervor of another group, I do often find it hard to make up my mind. When faced with competing moral claims from different value systems, I do often throw up my hands and say, “Well — I hope you all figure it out and find a way to get along.” I do have that tendency toward wishy-washiness which is present in so many caricatures of liberal centrists, from everywhere on the political spectrum. When there really is a moral crisis, I’m not always the quickest to recognize it as such: I like to do a lot of research, hear from a variety of perspectives, and sit and think while the facts roll around in my brain before coming to any really strongly-felt position.

Maybe those things are the “procedures” so disdained by anti-liberals, and maybe, over time, they, along with my ever-growing distrust of almost every political group and media source that exists, have eroded all my ability to take instinctual stock of a moral crisis and act accordingly. Maybe, but maybe not; in any event, I doubt I am particularly representative of liberals of any stripe.

There were also more substantive (forgive the joke) ways in which Ahmari and, to a certain degree, Kessler seemed to mirror the left-wing side of the left-versus-liberal debates I’m familiar with: They endorsed political positions and social stances that are, by and large, much more likely to be associated with the left than the right these days. Take Kessler’s six core elements of Trumpism: protectionism in trade; anti-interventionism in foreign policy; immigration restriction; lower taxes; conservative judges; and a caustic, often vulgar communicative style involving heavy and uniquely personal social media use. While only two of these six were popular with the Republican mainstream before 2016, three of them are popular with today’s Democratic Socialists of America-style left. Okay, perhaps I’m cheating: taxes and judges are pretty important compared to one’s approach to tweeting. Still, this raises the possibility of a genuine horseshoe alliance — one that has been taken up by a few socialists less opposed to certain elements of Trump’s program, like Angela Nagle, who wrote against open borders from (what she thought of as) a left-wing perspective in American Affairs.

It is American Affairs, in fact, which though it has become more ecumenical was founded originally as a sort of journal of Trump-era conservative thought, that is mentioned in Jon Baskin’s Chronicle profile of Ahmari and some of the more sophisticated opponents of liberalism in his milieu as being aimed explicitly against a certain aspect of “actually existing capitalism.” A central figure in the anti-liberal circles discussed there is Patrick Deneen, whose Why Liberalism Failed was able to collect and express some of the growing right-wing sentiment around these issues in early 2018. Baskin describes Deneen as holding the view that America “has always been structurally inhospitable to people of faith, beginning with its Constitution and including its commitment to an amoral and unrestrained capitalism.”

This is almost like a Catholic version of the 1619 Project recently featured in the pages of the New York Times — a claim not just of the historical marginalization of a group but of some sort of essential oppressive force, traceable through genealogy, at the heart of some system. But it’s not just the same style — it’s the same system! Both the conservatives and the progressives seem to see this force operating at the heart of capitalism, and maybe of liberalism as well.

Are there any prospects for an alliance of anti-liberals across the political spectrum? Could the much-ballyhooed horseshoe theory become a horseshoe practice?

It is a commonplace within a certain kind of anti-liberal discourse that there is no political party for voters who are left-wing on economic issues but right-wing on social issues. There is, in fact, both a political and intellectual void there, and while I don’t really think Ahmari got the best of French in this particular debate, it’s good for some sort of national conservation that such a popular position is being taken up and defended with at least some rigor.

I think anti-capitalist statements and language about everything being political, no principles being neutral, and so on, while genuinely felt by conservative anti-liberals who say these things, are also a bit of a marketing strategy. Ahmari mentioned during the debate that his movement is largely popular with younger conservatives. Anecdotally I think this is true: I managed to speak with a lot of new conservative friends on a recent trip to the East Coast, and while not all of them expressed much personal faith in Ahmari, or in the Josh Hawley and Peter Thiel-featuring National Conservatism Conference which many of them attended around that time, they all felt that this new direction was either politically or intellectually important to take. People in these movements may even take themselves to be competing with the DSA for adherents, for all I know.

And yet another crucial claim of these conservatives tends to be that social issues often outweigh economic issues in American politics. Ahmari certainly spent far more time discussing drag queens and pornography than he did discussing anything that would have resonated with my old college friends when they participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests. And though he objected to “woke capitalism” and stressed — over French’s protests — that corporations can be just as dangerously powerful as the government, it really seemed like the “woke” part rather than the “capitalism” part that drove his critique.

A few years ago, even before the Trump election, the DSA-adjacent podcast Chapo Trap House interviewed Matthew Walther, a Catholic writer and notable “trad” (for “traditionalist”) commentator on political and social issues. As I understand it, Walther is exactly the sort of economically-left, socially-right young person who could make these sorts of overtures. But the conversation devolved, predictably, when the topic of abortion came up, and the interview ended with Amber A’Lee Frost, the show’s female host, yelling about the abortions she’d had over the repeated prayers of their religious guest.

Perhaps things are different in the Trump era; perhaps there really is a critical mass of leftists willing to give social conservatism a try if it means a large enough political coalition. To be honest, though, for all the intellectual interest and social intrigue there may be in these movements, I sort of doubt it. And one advantage of liberalism is precisely this: that if one sort of anti-liberal is worried about another, it often seems — at least to this liberal — to be the liberal edifice that keeps the latter from the former’s throat. It’s not clear at all that a greater variety of anti-liberal movements means a greater threat to liberalism.

In fact, it might be quite the opposite: it might be that these anti-liberalisms cancel each other out or end in some sort of stalemate, the center holding ever stronger as the edge-things fall apart, like an indecisive person who cooks at home because there are too many restaurants to choose from. Or — Ahmari and his ilk would no doubt say — like someone who never ends up eating at all.

Oliver Traldi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a columnist for Arc Digital. His work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, National Review, Tablet, Quillette, Areo, and other places. Follow him on Twitter @olivertraldi.

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